Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The best books I read in 2014 – history

State violence and repression during World War II and the Cold War and its ideological rationales are of more than historical interest. The arguments and techniques developed in this era have persisted in today’s security state, shaping contemporary politics and affecting, sometimes destroying, lives and social movements. The best books in history and fiction that I read in 2014 deal explicitly with the mid-twentieth century but they’re relevant to today’s world.

The first book - Alice Kaplan’s The Collaborator - I’ve already discussed here, so I won’t say more about that one.

The second, also about intellectuals and politics, Frances Stonor Saunders’ (2000) The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,

describes how the CIA, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other fronts, worked during the Cold War to move intellectuals on the Left in Europe and the US in the direction of US strategic interests and to promote the voices of those more friendly to the US. Some digression is necessary: I learned of it reading Sonia Kruks’ introduction to Beauvoir’s 1955 article “Right-Wing Thought Today” in Simone de Beauvoir: Political Writings. In this introduction, Kruks condenses the main arguments in Beauvoir’s article:
What above all characterizes right-wing thought in the twentieth century, Beauvoir claims, is that it has become no more than a ‘counter-thought’. The optimism of nineteenth-century bourgeois thought, that of a class that was still rising, had begun to wane already by the First World War. Since the advent of the Soviet Union, the main task of right-wing thought has been to oppose itself to communism. To do so effectively, it must justify the status quo and preach passivity and inaction to those who might otherwise challenge the class order. Right-wing thought thus lacks a positive content: it is no more than a range of disparate and often inconsistent reactions; a mishmash of counter-assertions. All that these share is their common opposition to the coherent and forward-looking theory and practice of communism. Because its main task is to legitimize the privilege of the few, both in their own eyes and in those of the many, right-wing thought is essentially inconsistent. For, Beauvoir argues, the proper endpoint of thought is to seek truths that are universal, and which thus apply to all. But since right-wing ‘thought’ instead aims only at the legitimation of particular interests, it denies this endpoint and is, as such, intrinsically irrational. This explains why it may take on so many and such contradictory forms. (108)
Kruks points to some criticisms of Beauvoir’s article: Its uncritical celebration of communism (this was her and Sartre’s phase of closest relations with the Communist Party) was inconsistent with her warnings against Seriousness in The Ethics of Ambiguity.1 Also, it lumps together liberal and ostensibly leftwing thinkers (or those who considered themselves leftwing and were generally seen as such) with far-Right ideologues.

She concludes (somewhat oddly – I agree with Tove Pettersen’s review which can be found here) that Beauvoir’s essay might be of “mainly historical interest” (110). She notes, however, that “elements…remain of enduring relevance” and “[i]t continues to offer prescient insights that still bear on debates about inequality, elitism, and privilege today” (111). In particular, Beauvoir is “highly attuned, well ahead of most other Left social critics of her day, to the Eurocentric and masculinist tones of Western elite thought, describing it as a thought that ‘monopolizes the supreme category – the human’ for itself” (110).

I found Beauvoir’s analysis of rightwing thought in the article absolutely brilliant and topical. Its value becomes even more evident when it’s read alongside not only works like Sartre’s “What Is Literature?”2 but The Cultural Cold War. Kruk’s concerns are valid, and of course, as she notes, Beauvoir’s turn toward Communist politics looks even worse in light of the trajectory of that movement; the philosophical inconsistency of her position with her earlier insights about Seriousness also had to be evident to her. And it’s true that seeing liberals and leftists grouped with vicious fascists is more than a little disconcerting, and had to have been offensive to many at the time.

That said, in a strange way her Communism and the suspiciousness and hypercriticality it engendered do seem to have sharpened her analysis of political thought and heightened her awareness of the forces at work. Regarding everything not Communist as rightwing does appear to reflect “a striking Manichaeism” (109), as Kruks says. At the same time, it enabled Beauvoir to draw out the rightwing elements of what were commonly seen as Leftist positions and arguments.

This is especially important because, as Beauvoir discusses in the article itself and Kruks and Stonor Saunders both note, she had strong suspicions about who was behind these rightwing tendencies on the Left, even specifically mentioning publications that, we can now show, were funded by the CIA. Stonor Saunders’ book vividly describes how the CIA and their accomplices carried out their manipulations of intellectual life in Europe and the US, a political project which went well beyond a few prominent European journals and encompassed major cultural events, art, music, movies, literature,… (There are writers whose rightwing tendencies always registered with me somehow but without ever really taking shape; seeing their work and its publication and promotion in this context adds another, indispensable level of understanding.)

There are two major ways in which this project was elitist and reactionary – the actual content of the ideas so incisively captured by Beauvoir, and the method: the process of manipulation from ‘above’, which was itself based on an extremely elitist ideology (it’s no accident that many of those involved were wealthy men recruited from elite universities and institutions: they shared the belief – inculcated since birth - that they should have the power and the duty to push “the masses” in the correct direction).

There can be no doubt that similar programs exist today and are operating around the world. Some have been covered fairly extensively while others remain largely in the shadows. Writers and intellectuals today, especially those on the Left, should read books like Stonor Saunders’ to better understand the political context in which they work. It’s common (and necessary) for people to point to the public attacks and the more or less overt censorship of McCarthyism, the Loyalty Program, and the like; but manipulations of the sort described by Stonor Saunders are equally pernicious, intellectually and politically.

Another excellent historical work that challenges the self-congratulatory, self-serving narratives of “Western” freedoms and rights is Carol Anderson’s (2003) Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.

Anderson describes how the NAACP, in an extraordinarily hostile political environment, lost its struggle3 to advance social and economic rights – the broad human rights of the UN declaration4 - and were ultimately pushed to narrow their goals to political rights, with tragic consequences especially for black USians. I’ll quote from the introduction and the epilogue:
How could all of the blood, all of the courage, and all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement still leave in its wake a nation where schools are more segregated than ever, where more than half of all black children live in poverty, and where the life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined? And how could a movement with so much promise still leave more than six million African Americans trapped and dying in the ‘underclass’? The answer lies, I believe, not so much in the well-documented struggle for civil rights, but in the little known, but infinitely more important, struggle for human rights. For too long, civil rights has been heralded as the ‘prize’ for black equality. Yet, those rights, no matter how bitterly fought for, could only speak to the overt legal and political discrimination that African Americans faced. Human rights, on the other hand, especially as articulated by the United Nations (UN) and influenced by the moral shock of the Holocaust, had the language and philosophical power to address not only the political and legal inequality that African Americans endured, but also the education, healthcare, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. (1-2)

…The opportunity that World War II presented has long since passed. Nevertheless, it is important to remember what was lost and why so that when the Third Reconstruction begins, and it must, the unresolved work of the First and Second Reconstructions can finally be completed and a nation will arise with a true commitment to equality and human rights. That is the prize. (276)
1 The Serious Person (or Man, as she describes him in the sexist noun/pronoun conventions of the twentieth century), is someone who has fled from freedom and responsibility by denying the openness of history and complexity of political action and identifying a cause, movement, or Party (Science, neoliberalism, “development,” the Greens,…) with progress toward the good and the just. Personal ethical responsibility for choices made and actions taken is thus relieved through identification with this progressive advance.

2 A collection of or about the work of Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus on the role and responsibility of the writer and intellectual would be interesting….

3 If I had any major criticism, it would be that I wished the global context and relations with movements in the colonized world had been given more emphasis.

4 And let’s be clear: after centuries of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide, and in the immediate wake of the rise of fascist European governments and a gargantuan conflict which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people through mass murder, war, starvation, and sickness and which followed closely on the heels of another horrific European war…a stated commitment to and declaration of universal human rights – even had it been meaningfully applied – would hardly be evidence of the higher development of human rights in the “West,” for pity’s sake.

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